WARNING: Spoilers for House of Cards season 6.
House of Cards' ending was better without using Frank Underwood. The final season of Netflix's political drama was rather different to originally planned: after multiple accusations against star Kevin Spacey for sexual assault, the lead actor was fired and season 6 entirely rewritten to focus singularly on Robin Wright's Claire Underwood.
To do this, House of Cards season 6 opens in the aftermath Frank Underwood's mysterious death. The final season then focuses on Claire battling off attacks from all sides while attempting to figure out how her husband died, convinced it was a murder. In the very final scene, the truth comes out: it was Doug Stamper, Frank's loyal assistant, who poisoned the former President as his moves against his wife began to threaten his legacy.
It's a shocking twist that leaves House of Cards ending on a rather open-ended note. But while it's immediately obvious that the final season's structure was changed substantially to work around the lack of Spacey, it may have actually led to a greater story.
- This Page: How Killing Frank Early Improved House of Cards
- Page 2: How The Season 6 Rewrites Helped House of Cards' Ending
House of Cards Wouldn't Have Killed Frank Underwood Without Spacey's Firing
While it was Kevin Spacey's firing from House of Cards that led to Frank Underwood already in the ground at the start of season 6, that's not to say he'd have lived to the end otherwise; it's widely accepted that the show would have always ended focusing on his death.
That's how the original BBC TV series on which House of Cards is based ended; Frank Urquhart is shot by his bodyguard under the orders of his wife in a bid to hide his true nature. While the crimes of Urquhart don't go as spiraling at Underwood, their stories - especially in the early seasons - bear a lot of similarities, and it was a sure-fire bet they'd meet a similar fate. This is assumed to be why, in House of Cards season 4, Frank suffers a near-fatal assassination attempt: it left him with a faulty liver, an easy-to-manipulate plot device that could kill him off at any time (indeed, it was overdosing on his medication that finally felled Frank).
The big assumed difference is that, in the pre-Spacey firing version of House of Cards season 6, Frank would have probably died at the end of the show. All indicators were that Spacey was a main character in the final season through to the end, and while House of Cards has killed of key players suddenly before, Frank Underwood is a bigger and more essential player than even Zoe Barnes. So, as much as his death is essential to the story, as is it being motivated to save Frank from himself, it would come at the other side of the sixth season as released - and that's very important.
House of Cards Season 6 Is All About Legacy - And Wouldn't Have Been With Frank
House of Cards season 6 takes on a lot, exploring the balance in the President's office between the good of the country, global power ranking and the rot of corporate America. But, above all, what the final season is about is legacy.
Claire is fighting the inevitable backlash of being the first female President, but also the threat the despicable acts of her husband (and herself) coming to light pose. Doug is driven almost entirely by his desire to protect Frank's memory, manipulating both sides and even giving up his own dark secrets in the hope it will keep the Underwood dynasty alive. And even industrialist family the Shepherds, new characters played by Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane) brought in to replace Frank as antagonists, are constantly wracked by generational handoff: Bill is dying and struggling to accept his non-biological nephew as a potential successor. Each of these threads intertwines over the season, providing a thoughtful conclusion to the show's questions of accountability.
What's so striking, though, is that all of these exist exactly because Frank is dead. Were Spacey still in the show, the Shepherds wouldn't exist and Claire's focus would be much more on rallying against her scheming husband. While there would still be a discussion of legacy in Frank's eventual death - especially if it was always going to be Doug who pulls the metaphorical trigger - it would be a less prominent factor by the nature of having the husband-wife conflict so forward.